By: Rajesh Reddy

 

When the children began to float downriver, the question was where were we to drink? There would be no other source until the rains began again, and so our huma bid the other elders to kneel beside the banks to try the water, which she’d forbid them to cup their hands into. “Look at how she makes them lap like dogs,” Khalali said between her teeth.

“You can make up your own rules one day,” I told her.

But the fear was not for our mothers or for our fathers but for the children, who would be unable to fight the poison, if indeed there was one. In her wisdom, our huma said that the body of an elder alone could cleanse the water, and it was then that they began collecting their urine for us to drink.

Khalali was seething at my side. “Anything to prove the worth of the old,” she said. “All she wants is for the lot of us to feel our place.” She was right, I knew, and I reached for her hand, but she wrenched it from me, narrowed her eyes, and whispered harshly, “I would never.”

“Never what?” I said. I didn’t know if she meant drinking from the pots or consenting to me. Answering both, I told her, “You’ll have to sometime.”

“I’d die before that, Tefta.”

 

That was six days back. It’s been eight since the first child appeared face down in the river, passed our village, and vanished around the bend. The brothers who’d seen it told the huma. She caught them by the ears and twisted, warning them not to spread lies. But three more bodies swept past that day. Another twenty-six appeared the following. It was then that the huma charged me to keep count and had torches staked into the banks for the purposes of my watch.

Seventy-two, fifty-one, eighty-eight, a hundred-and-six, forty-one, twenty-eight, and five. Five—that was the number yesterday. I explained to the huma an hour ago how a lone child, a girl, I think it was, passed me in the early night.

“Just the one?” she asked me.

“By my count,” I said.

She drew me to her then and took me in her arms. Although she was beyond my father’s age, she felt like a child in that moment. I had grown tall since last year’s rains and she no longer reached my chin, our village mother. As I held her, I realized she must have been listening to my heartbeat. How different it must have sounded from fourteen years ago when she drew me from my mother into the world. The embrace lasted just a moment and she looked me over after, then called for one of the pots to relieve me of my thirst.

And so we’ve gathered along the banks this morning, hopeful that the disease has seized all whom it would claim, or that the warring factions have agreed to cease drowning the other’s children, or that the last child has been drowned, or that the war itself has been lost or won. The reason, you see, doesn’t matter—not to those whose only wish is to drink for themselves again. Over these past eight days, the young have lost their color. They’ve grown yellow around the eyes. And the elders? They’re the worst among us. The water has made them listless. Some complain that they cannot drink enough, that their throats are always dry. Even the huma is taken. But at least we are all of us still alive.

Khalali, meanwhile, sits on the opposing bank. Her arms are folded across her knees, her dark hair twisted and pulled into a knot. She won’t look at me. She’s refused to come close since the last time I tried her hand. But you mustn’t think poorly of her. Mustn’t judge as others might. It is hard for her—being the next in line for huma. The designation made her swell with pride some years ago, but lately she is distant, always brooding in the village. Me, I cannot blame her. I could not bear the weight myself, for you see, a huma must be barren, and is judged profane if proved otherwise. There are two lives awaiting her, and even the youngest know how to count them: one in which she’ll be the mother to us all; the second in which she’ll be nothing, will have nothing, except for the child and for me and the village we start together. And just as the time came for our huma, Khalali is to be tested by a chosen man.

But Khalali will not consent to that now, though she’d promised me some years ago. She swore to me on the bank eight days back that she’d not drink after an elder, or the huma either. But a body—a body can only thirst so long before it will be satisfied, I told her. And the banks, I added, were to be watched by me all night and day. She has not approached me since.

An hour passes when the boys come running along the banks to warn us. But we see the bodies just as they shout. There are hundreds plunging in the current, then rising again like logs, the smallest roiling the water, the hair of the girls fanned across it like spider webs. Near me, a girl cries that she sees herself in one of the bloated faces. At the water’s edge, the huma looks over her shoulder at her father, who slaps the girl for quiet. Khalali watches this from across the river. She shakes her head and takes her leave. It is two minutes before the flood breaks. Another appears a while later, and then a second, and a third. The huma has left as well. I find my place to resume my count.

 

It’s past midnight now and I lay back against the slope and listen to the stream, which has lent me comfort these past nine days. You see, I sleep only every tenth or eleventh night. I do not tire like the others but live what Khalali calls a Tefta Day. Most nights are hard to bear. It is not easy to be alone. But there are stars to watch, phases of the moon to study. My longest Tefta Day is fifteen suns, and I think one might even last long enough for me to see the moon wax full and vanish. It will be like the blinking of an eye. But for now there are bodies to fill the nights. There is purpose in counting them. It is a kind of pleasure.

Twenty-two have passed since nightfall. They’ve made me think about all the bends that lie upriver. It’s not difficult to imagine how they might have come together, the bodies locking to form a dam. How many lives would it take to make it? How many more to force the lot to move again? Villages are much the same, I think, when Khalali appears on the opposing bank. She’s let her hair down and the length of it shines in the torches’ light. How small she looks across the water. How small I must seem to her. The distance has the effect of years, and suddenly we’re the children who used to wrestle in the grasses. She’s the girl who pinned me down and promised I’d be the one.

“Come to keep me company?” I ask her.

“I’m on the other side,” she says.

It’s hard to hear her over the current. “There’s the rope line,” I offer.

“I’m better off here,” she says.

We sit a little while when a figure appears upstream. The water spins the child as it nears us and the river draws it under just as it begins to glow under the nearest light.

“How many?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I’d lost the count?” I ask, but she doesn’t answer. “Twenty-three,” I say.

Khalali glances at the moon, then looks upriver. “Aren’t you tired, Tefta?”

“I don’t get tired. You forget.”

“Tired of it all, I mean.”

“I know what you meant, and no,” I say. “It’s all upstream. It doesn’t involve us.”

Khalali shakes her head. “When you look at the water, Tefta, you see the water only.”

“And what is it I’m supposed to see?”

“You’ve lost your color like the rest of them. Your eyes—”

“I’m alive. And so are you.”

“That’s reason enough to stay, is it?”

“Not enough for one of us, apparently.”

Khalali nods. She stands and brushes the dirt from her legs. “The poison has to have been poured in somewhere, the illness started someplace.”

“And you’ll not drink from the river until you get past that point?”

“I’ll get along.”

“And how many thought the same before they tried upriver, too?”

“If you ever add me to your count, then you’ll know it was at least the one,” she says.

A moment later she is gone. It was only a child’s promise after all, I know. But it was promised to me nonetheless, and I can still feel her forearm hard on my throat from the time she made it. In all the years since, I’d believed that if either of us was to leave the village, that we would have left it together, the two of us made three. But there are some lives that never come to be, I know, and I cross my arms and look upstream. A boy of five or six floats by. Twenty-four. Another boy follows him, then a girl, and then another. An hour later, two babies pass my post, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. It is the last of the pre-dawn dark now. Larks are warbling in their flight.

In minutes, the elders will descend upon the banks to drink again, and I add a thirtieth and then a thirty-first to the count I will leave the huma. They haven’t passed the village yet, but I know that they are coming. I cup my hands into the current in the hope that it will take me to where we have gone.